Zooming in on Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s, “Black Market” of the 1990s: High Resolution Panoramas

[Update: Video tour added.]

To see the big picture, sometimes you have to look at the details.

A couple years ago I wrote a post on a World Bank blog about how Ulaanbaatar had changed since I lived there in the 1990s, sharing a “video” of the old Ulaanbaatar (from my old photos) morphing into the new Ulaanbaatar (from new photos). The post and the video proved very popular among Mongolians. At one point Bloomberg TV Mongolia played it on air (with my permission), even improving it by adding some music.

The rarity of the old photos is what makes them so interesting. As I noted in the blog, people didn’t take many photos back then. The marginal cost was high and it was socially odd to break out a camera. But photos of a period of tumultuous change bring benefits that are clearer is hindsight than they were at the time.

While the morphing videos are fun—there in shorter one of Erdenet here—the detail in the photos gets lost. When I took photos of the Black Market in the 1990s, I had the intention of blowing them up into poster-sized prints. The way to do that with only 35mm film was to take several photos with a long lens, and then tape the prints together. I never did make the poster, due to shortage of wall space more than anything else, but I have had the scotch-taped 3x5s and 4x6s in my offices for more than 20 years. A recent twitter exchange prompted me to do something that has been on my agenda for a long time, which is to find a way to take the scanned versions of those photo panoramas and put them together into high-resolution versions.

In this post, I will show some of the “big picture” photographs, as well as some of the detail you can only get from zooming in.  At the end of the post I will share links to the high resolution photographs for those who wish to explore themselves. To give some context, I will also quote a bit from my study The Size, Origins, and Character of Mongolia’s Informal Sector During the Transition.

The first photo is from 1994, when I climbed upon a hill to get the whole picture and a measure of anonymity. I used to go to the “Sunday Market”, the biggest day of the week, every couple months or so, but generally didn’t take my camera. Times were tough and thieves with razor blades would slice right through bags to get at wallets or other valuables. We were always advised to carry backpacks in front, but on one occasion, even that wasn’t enough. A friend watched his bag get cut right in front of him and grabbed the guy, but the place was so jam packed with people there was nothing he could do but let the guy go. Suffice it to say, pulling out an SLR in that crowd was not something I was keen to do, at least not often.

1994 stitched together
Ulaanbaatar Black Market, 1994. Panorama of three photographs.

You can get a bit of a sense of the crowd in the 1994 photo and in the ones below. Packed together shoulder-to-shoulder, there would be times when dozens of people at a time would slip on ice like dominoes. The market was also where I got my first lessons in cultural perspective. It was not unusual to feel someone pushing you in the back in Mongolia, something that is not unusual there but was bothersome from my cultural perspective. Yet, if someone accidentally stepped on your foot, he or she would immediately turn around to shake your hand, even in a crowded setting like this, unexpected by me but in keeping with Mongolian cultural traditions.

In 1997, when I was working on the informal sector study, I went back to the same spot and took an even more detailed set of photos. One panorama in 1997 was made up of four different photographs, and the other twelve. Here is how they look when all stitched together.

1997 stitched together from 04
Ulaanbaatar Black Market, 1997. Panorama of four photographs.
1997 stitched together from 12
Ulaanbaatar Black Market, 1997. Panorama of twelve photographs.

As an economist, I was fascinated by the informal sector, and the Black Market was prominent in my study. I referred to it as the “Nucleus of Ulaanbaatar’s Informal Sector”:

“The name of the ‘Black’ Market reflects its history more than its present. Although this market undoubtedly is a convenient place for thieves to fence stolen goods, and is notorious for pickpockets, the vast majority of the economic activity taking place in this single hectare of fenced land that the Mongolian comedian Batsuh* had in mind when questioned about the definition of a market economy, is legal. Although it existed as a trading place prior to the abandonment of communism, and may not have been illegal even then, it was certainly ‘less free’ as one of the managers put it. (The management prefers the name ‘central market’ but most Mongolians still refer to it as the ‘black market.’)”

Some of the changes in the intervening three years are immediately clear. Where there was a stream of ice in 1994, by 1997 there was a concrete gully.

stream to gully
Outside the Ulaanbaatar Black Market, 1994 (left) and 1997 (right). Details from panoramas.

The biggest change, though, was something obvious in every part of the photographs: organization. Whereas the 1994 photos depict a sea of people, by 1997 there were umbrellas and structures. The 1994 “gate”, simply an opening in the wall, had by 1997 been replaced by a real gate.

“Estimates of the popularity of the ‘black’ market are staggering. According to estimates provided by the management, by duureg officials, and by the Ulaanbaatar City Administration, between 60,000 and 100,000 people (10-17% of Ulaanbaatar’s population) visit the market on its busy days, Saturday and Sunday, half as many on weekdays.”

both years crowds
Ulaanbaatar Black Market, 1994 (top) and 1997 (bottom). Details from panoramas.
1994 gate
Gate, Ulaanbaatar Black Market, 1994. Detail from panorama.
1997 gate and omo and informal buses
Gate, Ulaanbaatar Black Market, 1997. Detail from panorama.

By 1997, one entire corner of the market had been designated for shipping containers, a feature notably absent in 1994. There are at least 100 shipping containers, each serving as its own storefront, visible in the 1997 photograph. The absence of formal premises was a theme of my study of the informal sector; containers serving as their own storefronts solved the problem.

“Management estimates that the average container sells out in 1-2 weeks. If this estimate is accurate, then between seven and fifteen thousand containers flow through the market in the course of the year.”

Ulaanbaatar Black Market, 1997, Detail from Panorama.

The absence of shipping containers and structures and organization in 1994 begs the question: what were all of those people selling? At the time, the economy was near its nadir after the collapse of socialist trade blocs and the withdrawal of Soviet aid. That sea of people in the 1994 photos consisted of people selling household belongings (an army belt, say, some stools, the occasional heirloom), people serving as distributors for domestically produced goods and raw materials, and some people selling imports.

The informal trade that filled the vacuum in the earliest days was largely, and literally, “suitcase trade”. People would go to Beijing, say, fill suitcases with goods, take them to Ulaanbaatar or onward to Russia, and sell for a steep markup. Then back to reinvest the profits and refill the bags.  As the bankrolls grew, the suitcases were replaced with “pigs”: soft, light-weight bags filled at Silk Alley in Beijing, and thoroughly wrapped with tape. By 1997, traders had enough cash to bring containers, but not in 1994.

Those selling domestically produced goods provide an illustration of the tumult of the times. Factories saw their markets, and cash, disappear. But there was a supply of raw materials, and workers had nowhere else to go, even if they couldn’t be paid. The solution? The workers were paid in the output of the factory (boots, say), and the workers became the distribution network.

Some of other details from the high resolution photos caught my attention. The giant billboard advertising OMO made me smile with nostalgia, while the container selling Vietnamese goods took me by surprise. “Vietnam auto service” shops are ubiquitous in Ulaanbaatar now, but I didn’t recall prominent Vietnamese trade when I lived in Ulaanbaatar in the 1990s. And then there are the cars. The UAZ (or “69”s as the Mongolians called them) were as omnipresent in Ulaanbaatar then as the Toyota Prius is today. The trucks in the photos, too, remind me of how the institutions of a market economy were evolving in those days.

“When trucks and buses were privatized to their drivers, the new owners found that, frequently, ownership of a vehicle was not enough to ensure steady work. They found that customers prefer the perceived stability and assurance of results achieved by contracting with an organization, as opposed to an individual. (This is particularly true for state contracts doing the sort of work the drivers had done in the past.) Not long after the vehicles were spun-off into individual private ownership, their owners joined forces in an organizational arrangement referred to as a ‘federation.’ The vehicles in a federation remain owned by the individual drivers; the administration organizes contracts, a service for which their members pay dues.”

I promised access to the high resolution photographs. But first I need to remind readers that I am an economist specializing in governance, not a photographer, much less a digital photographer. I wanted to find a way to make a digital equivalent of my scotch-taped panoramas, preferably without downloading and learning new software. I eventually managed to do so using PowerPoint, the same blunt instrument that I used to make the morphing videos. (Don’t laugh. It worked.)

I have no doubt that the resolution could be made even sharper with improvements at each stage: a better scanner, better approach to stitching the photographs together, etc. But as my PhD advisor often reminded me, (very often, come to think of it), the best is the enemy of the good. Someday in the future I will have even better versions and will share them then.

Here are the links to the high resolution files. Each is about 40MB, which is as high as I could get it. To really zoom in, you will need to download the images from the Flickr site onto your own computer or device. I also made a show video, of sorts, embedded below.

The Black Market in 1994, panorama from three photographs.

The Black Market in 1997, panorama from four photographs.

The Black Market in 1997, panorama from twelve photographs.

The photos themselves show a bit of Mongolia’s history, and I am happy to share more widely. I will post the individual photos on my Flickr site. Perhaps readers can print out the twelve from 1997 and have youngsters put them together like a puzzle. My preference, though, is to view the detail in context, as part of a larger panorama of Ulaanbaatar’s economy in transition. The big picture without the detail misses something, and vice versa. Taking a virtual tour of the whole thing is much more satisfying.


Please note that the images on Flickr and on this post are copyrighted using the Creative Commons license for Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND.

* The reference to the comedian was drawn from a routine I saw at the circus once:

  • Teacher: What is a market economy?
  • Pupil: I know this one! It’s when a lot of people crowd into a fenced area, and push each other around, buying and selling stuff.


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